Ulrich Tukur and Yolande Moreau, in 'Seraphine'

Dir. Martin Provost
(2009, Not Rated, 120 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The title character of Séraphine is a distant, inward woman. In early scenes, she barely says a word, devotedly attending mass, then returning to the homes of her employers. She cleans houses and is dutiful in her chores, following orders without even a nod. She’s so unassuming you could miss that she’s in the room with you. In-between her duties she secretly gathers strange items: a vial of blood from the butcher shop, melted candle wax from her church. They’re supplies for painting. She’s an artist, but she doesn’t seem to see herself that way. She does it compulsively, because she’s inspired by her “guardian angel.” When others find out, she’s embarrassed. When they praise her work as outstanding, she doesn’t believe them. Who, me?

Séraphine Louis was a painter who worked through the early 20th Century in France, in the midst of the First World War and the Great Depression, but as shown in this film she barely seems to notice those things. She just paints, with a single-minded intensity that borders on mania. Co-written and directed by Martin Provost, this French-language period biopic first frames Séraphine as a conventional success story. The unsung artist finds herself cleaning the house of an influential art dealer and critic, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German expatriate. Wilhelm discovers her work by accident, in the possession of Séraphine’s dismissive employer (“Are those supposed to be apples?”). Séraphine is a genius. Her talent must be nurtured.

We don’t realize right away but come to understand in retrospect that this story is largely about mental illness. Yolande Moreau plays Séraphine as if constantly preoccupied by a world none of us can see. At first it seems to be the stubborn eccentricity of an artiste. Then a sad, lonely dimension is added to it and we realize how terrific a performance it has really been and what it’s been subtly indicating. Provost films a lot of pastoral beauty, green trees and meadows that Séraphine absorbs and turns into vibrantly colorful nature images on canvas. The artist would come to an unfortunate end, dying alone in a mental institution in 1942, but the very last shot of the film is wonderfully kind, lonely and still, but achieving a kind of peaceful respite.